There was an ad to the side of PZ Meyer’s site, Pharyngula, for an obviously Christian mission of some kind. Thinking that this was probably placed by an algorithm that simply looks for religious comments, but that clicking on it would cost the religious organization some money (yes, I admit to a mean and unworthy motivation) I clicked on it. That took me Godlife and “Four steps to God” The first four were standard Christian dogma, simple statements that I think are obviously nonsense. The fourth step was this one:
I clicked on no, of course. That took me to the next page, with a drop down menu for the subject line.
That’s a very limited list of possible subject lines. The only one I could click on was “Do you have any further questions.” Well, I did have one question. No, two. After unchecking the invitation for a weekly prayer letter, I sent the following:
Don’t you feel just a bit silly telling people about these beliefs?
Don’t you feel just a bit like a five year old telling his friends that Santa Claus is real?
Much to my surprise, I got an answer back from somebody named Greg. It was a very reasonable and polite answer. It intrigues me:
*************begin response from Greg at Godlife.com **************************
Well, no I don’t feel silly in the slightest. I actually understand your reaction to the message of Jesus Christ and how that would lead you think it is “magical “or “imaginary”. The bible says, “The natural man does not accept the things of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
Now, I am not trying to insult you. It simply is what the bible says about your situation–and that is something that we all face at some point in our lives. Only the person who sincerely seeks God will receive the help necessary to find Him and understand.
Of course you would probably not give much credibility to what the bible says about it. I can only tell you that I have lived a long time. Long enough to have many experiences that prove biblical wisdom and so I give it much credibility.
Don’t you feel just a bit like a five-year old telling his friends that Santa is real?
I would say yes and no. If you ever believed in Santa, then you can understand the excitement that faith produces. My faith, that is my belief that God raised Jesus from the dead and His death paid in full the penalty for my sins, produces a similar kind of excitement and I enjoy telling others about how they can have the peace and security I have.
That Santa does not exist is easily proven and most of us realize that his story isn’t true long before we reach maturity. The story of Santa simply does not stand the test of time and depends on a certain amount of disception to fool very young and impressionable children. So I would also say no, I don’t feel like a five-year old telling a friend about a fictional character.
Darwin, at the end of the day what matters is whether the gospel of Jesus is true or false. If it is false, then it has no value, no moral standing no useful teaching. I would be totally justified in pursuing anything and everythiing I wanted–by any means. There would be no accountablility. If it is true, then there is great value to gained by believing.
So, the question really is this: Was the tomb empty? Did Jesus overcome death and the grave? Because if He did then His message has more authority, more truth, more value than any other. No one else has overcome death. No other religion makes such a claim–not Muhammad, not Buddha, not any of them.
I can imagine that you would quickly respond that Jesus did not conquer the grave. There is no evidence! But, have you really considered the claim, examined the evidence? I think you might be surprised by what you would learn and I would be happy to walk through it with you, listen to your skepticism and answer your questions. Or if you prefer I can recommend a book. It is The Evidence Demands A Verdict, by Josh McDowell. At the least I would be quite interested in your reaction and/or rebuttal to the material he presents.
I hope to hear from you again.
*************end response from Greg at Godlife.com **************************
Well hear from me again he did, presumably. This is what I wrote:
Thank you for your thoughtful and intelligent reply to my questions. I welcome a conversation with you, because I spend far too much time talking to other non-believers, and we all make assumptions about what believers think. So it’s good to be not “preaching to the choir”. I also appreciate the courtesy of your response.
I’m going to start with the assumption that you are an intelligent person, and sincerely believe what you believe. You must feel this very strongly to be motivated to take part in this kind of outreach. I hope you can also accept that I am a thoughtful human being and that my views, while they will be very different from yours, are simply what I have come to believe. I would like to understand you. More importantly to me, I would like you to understand me. So few devout Christians do.
You invited questions from me. I asked:
Don’t you feel just a bit silly telling people about these beliefs?
And you responded: “Well, no I don’t feel silly in the slightest. I actually understand your reaction to the message of Jesus Christ and how that would lead you think it is “magical “or “imaginary”. The bible says, “The natural man does not accept the things of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
I certainly agree with this. I cannot understand “the things of God”, and they certainly seem foolish to me. But I do understand that “spiritually discerned” actually means “imagined” or “somebody made this up”. As far as I can see, there can be no other meaning for it. We either observe things with our senses, or deduce them with logic from things we do observe with our senses. Anything else is just guessing or filling in answers we would like when we don’t have any real ones.
You went on to write: “Now, I am not trying to insult you. It simply is what the bible says about your situation–and that is something that we all face at some point in our lives. Only the person who sincerely seeks God will receive the help necessary to find Him and understand.”
I’m glad you are not trying to insult me. I shall not try to insult you. I will, however speak directly and bluntly, and I hope you do not take offense. I have never been given a good reason why I should “sincerely seek God”. To do so, to me, sounds like trekking off to the North Pole to seek Santa. Or, if I were told that Santa can’t be found in this physical world, then spending my days reading books about Santa and watching “Miracle on 34th. Street” or “One Magic Christmas”, and trying in every way to confirm my belief in this imaginary magical person.
You concluded with: “Of course you would probably not give much credibility to what the bible says about it. I can only tell you that I have lived a long time. Long enough to have many experiences that prove biblical wisdom and so I give it much credibility.”
I have also lived a long time, quite possibly longer than you. I have studied religions. I have read the bible. I give it the credibility it deserves, which is none at all. The bible is a collection of iron age myths cobbled together by a number of “scholars” over many centuries. It was not dictated by God to the secretary of King James.
My next question was:
Don’t you feel just a bit like a five-year old telling his friends that Santa is real?
And you responded: “I would say yes and no. If you ever believed in Santa, then you can understand the excitement that faith produces.”
This is what I think about this answer: I can’t remember ever believing in Santa. I do remember asking my mother how Santa would come to our house when we didn’t have a chimney. She told me he would come through the keyhole. Good enough explanation for a three year old.
Belief in many things can give us excitement. That doesn’t mean that the belief is in any way true. Many people argue for the existence of God using the argument to consequences. If you believe in God you will be happy and excited. If you don’t, your life will be bleak and have no meaning and there will be nothing keeping you from being a bad person, or from suicide. I reject these ideas. I don’t think believing in things just because I want them to be true will make my life happier or better. I do believe that I have a basis for morality and love, and I have lots of meaning in my life. I don’t need the promise of an afterlife in heaven, or the threat of eternal punishment, to make me a moral person.
You went on to say: “My faith, that is my belief that God raised Jesus from the dead and His death paid in full the penalty for my sins, produces a similar kind of excitement and I enjoy telling others about how they can have the peace and security I have.”
Now this is interesting. For this to have meaning for you, you must believe that you are basically sinful. That somehow you were not a worthy person, not deserving of respect. As if you are a person who should feel guilty just for existing. I don’t feel this way. I have done things in my life that I’m not proud of, and I have made mistakes. When I did those things of which I am not proud, it made me feel bad. I don’t like feeling bad, so I try to learn from my mistakes and not to do things that I’m not proud of. This seems simple to me. I hope I have learned from my mistakes, and become a better person as a result.
Believe it or not, I also have peace and security. But I have it without thinking that I was born in sin and somehow needed somebody to be sacrificed to take my sins upon him. To me that is a horrible, primitive and foolish idea. It dates back to the days when they would load their sins on a goat and chase it out into the desert, the scapegoat. It’s like punishing a person for a crime committed by somebody else. How can sins be transferred from one person to another, even to your Jesus. And why would it be necessary? Was this the best plan your God could come up with, to sacrifice his son for humanity? Could not an omnipotent being who created everything find a better plan than this?
My security comes from accepting reality, as I see it, and accepting that life is finite and short, that every minute I’m alive is precious, that my friends and family are the most important things in my life, not some promised afterlife for which I see no evidence at all.
To my Santa question specifically you wrote: “That Santa does not exist is easily proven and most of us realize that his story isn’t true long before we reach maturity. The story of Santa simply does not stand the test of time and depends on a certain amount of deception to fool very young and impressionable children. So I would also say no, I don’t feel like a five-year old telling a friend about a fictional character.”
Hmmnnn. That Santa does not exist is easily proven? How interesting that you say this so glibly. What follows is not original to me. It comes from another atheist blogger. But I can find no flaw in his analogy.
***** Begin quote from http://godisimaginary.com/i7.htm *********
Let’s imagine that I tell you the following story:
- There is a man who lives at the North Pole.
- He lives there with his wife and a bunch of elves.
- During the year, he and the elves build toys.
- Then, on Christmas Eve, he loads up a sack with all the toys.
- He puts the sack in his sleigh.
- He hitches up eight (or possibly nine) flying reindeer.
- He then flies from house to house, landing on the rooftops of each one.
- He gets out with his sack and climbs down the chimney.
- He leaves toys for the children of the household.
- He climbs back up the chimney, gets back in his sleigh, and flies to the next house.
- He does this all around the world in one night.
- Then he flies back to the North Pole to repeat the cycle next year.
This, of course, is the story of Santa Claus.
But let’s say that I am an adult, and I am your friend, and I reveal to you that I believe that this story is true. I believe it with all my heart. And I try to talk about it with you and convert you to believe it as I do.
What would you think of me? You would think that I am delusional, and rightly so.
Why do you think that I am delusional? It is because you know that Santa is imaginary. The story is a total fairy tale. No matter how much I talk to you about Santa, you are not going to believe that Santa is real. Flying reindeer, for example, are make-believe. The dictionary defines delusion as, “A false belief strongly held in spite of invalidating evidence.” That definition fits perfectly.
Since you are my friend, you might try to help me realize that my belief in Santa is a delusion. The way that you would try to do that is by asking me some questions. For example, you might say to me:
- “But how can the sleigh carry enough toys for everyone in the world?” I say to you that the sleigh is magical. It has the ability to do this intrinsically.
- “How does Santa get into houses and apartments that don’t have chimneys?” I say that Santa can make chimneys appear, as shown to all of us in the movie The Santa Clause.
- “How does Santa get down the chimney if there’s a fire in the fireplace?” I say that Santa has a special flame-resistant suit, and it cleans itself too.
- “Why doesn’t the security system detect Santa?” Santa is invisible to security systems.
- “How can Santa travel fast enough to visit every child in one night?” Santa is timeless.
- “How can Santa know whether every child has been bad or good?” Santa is omniscient.
- “Why are the toys distributed so unevenly? Why does Santa deliver more toys to rich kids, even if they are bad, than he ever gives to poor kids?” There is no way for us to understand the mysteries of Santa because we are mere mortals, but Santa has his reasons. For example, perhaps poor children would be unable to handle a flood of expensive electronic toys. How would they afford the batteries? So Santa spares them this burden.
These are all quite logical questions that you have asked. I have answered all of them for you. I am wondering why you can’t see what I see, and you are wondering how I can be so insane.
Why didn’t my answers satisfy you? Why do you still know that I am delusional? It is because my answers have done nothing but confirm your assessment. My answers are ridiculous. In order to answer your questions, I invented, completely out of thin air, a magical sleigh, a magical self-cleaning suit, magical chimneys, “timelessness” and magical invisibility. You don’t believe my answers because you know that I am making this stuff up. The invalidating evidence is voluminous.
***** End quote from http://godisimaginary.com/i7.htm *********
Greg, you wrote: Darwin, at the end of the day what matters is whether the gospel of Jesus is true or false.
I agree with you completely. This matters to me, and to a great many other people.
And added: “If it is false, then it has no value, no moral standing no useful teaching.”
I also agree with this. And frankly I think it is false. I see no value, moral standing, or useful teaching in your bible.
But then you added this: “I would be totally justified in pursuing anything and everything I wanted–by any means.”
Whoa. Hold on. Why on earth would you think this? Do you believe that I feel totally justified in pursuing anything and everything I want, by any means? Can you not believe that I am a loving father, and a loving grandfather, a loving husband with friends who are incredibly important to me. Can you not imagine that I am part of this world, part of humanity, and part of a culture that I want to see flourish and improve. Can you not see me this way all because I don’t accept the authority of your holy book?
You said that you didn’t intend to insult me. I actually don’t mind being insulted. But I do hope you can see why this attitude from you might be insulting to me.
You elaborated with: “There would be no accountability.”
Again, how can you think this? Do you imagine that I don’t know the difference between right and wrong because I don’t accept your book, which, by the way, is a very limited guide to moral values. Every Christian cherry picks the bible for verses that support their position. Nobody actually lives by biblical rules. In fact, they’d throw you in jail if you ever tried it.
Do you imagine that without your faith and belief in God you would feel free to steal and murder? What kind of a monster do you imagine yourself to be?
And finally, you stated: “If it is true, then there is great value to gained by believing.”
I see no value to be gained by believing things that are most likely, almost certainly, not true. If it is true, then you must live your life as a child, subservient to this tyrant God of yours. You have no responsibility for your own actions. You will be punished by the celestial father figure if you do something you know is wrong. You will be rewarded if you behave in ways that any decent person would behave in without needing divine guidance.
Worst of all, you will go to Hell if you use your own brain and question this God. If you decide, in your confusion, that this God doesn’t even exist, He will send you to Hell for ETERNITY. Just for making an honest and simple mistake. Some loving God you have there.
So you arrived at this statement: “So, the question really is this: Was the tomb empty? Did Jesus overcome death and the grave? Because if He did then His message has more authority, more truth, more value than any other. No one else has overcome death. No other religion makes such a claim–not Muhammad, not Buddha, not any of them.”
Greg, again I do not mean to insult you, but only a very ignorant person could make this claim. Mohammedans certainly believe in an afterlife. Buddhists view life as part of a circle of birth and reincarnation, with the object of enlightenment being to escape this endless trap of suffering and pain. So many religions claim to conquer death.
Christianity did not emerge from the cultural landscape with no precedents. Your religion incorporated beliefs that were current at the time in several other religions – Ugaritic Baal, Melqart, Adonis, Eshmun, Osiris and Dumuzi as examples. Resurrection from the dead is hardly unique to Christianity. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resurrection
In fact there is absolutely nothing unique in the Christian promise. Most religions of the world promise the same thing. Also, just because a claim is unique, doesn’t show that it is true or that it matters.
And that is leaving aside the question of why we would want to overcome death. (I thought this thought was original to me, but I’ve recently discovered that Mark Twain said it first.) I was dead for billions of years before I was born. Why would I think my condition would be any different after I die? And why would I want it to be any different? The fact that life is short is what gives it meaning. The fact that we only get to taste love, smell flowers, smile at strangers, appreciate sunsets, hug our children and grandchildren, get licked by puppies and all the other joys of being alive for only fleeting moments, this is what makes life precious. Not some desire to live forever.
You concluded you letter thusly: “I can imagine that you would quickly respond that Jesus did not conquer the grave. There is no evidence! But, have you really considered the claim, examined the evidence? I think you might be surprised by what you would learn and I would be happy to walk through it with you, listen to your skepticism and answer your questions. Or if you prefer I can recommend a book. It is The Evidence Demands A Verdict, by Josh McDowell. At the least I would be quite interested in your reaction and/or rebuttal to the material he presents.”
I’m sure you can imagine all kinds of responses from me. You and I live in completely different mental worlds. Greg, I would be very happy to go on this walk with you. But I warn you, I am also no spring chicken. I was raised in the Church of England, and later the Baptist Church. I can recite the Apostles Creed by heart. I probably know the Bible as well as you do, possibly better from the things you have said here. I am willing to enter into a conversation with you, but I’m not willing to listen to endless repetitions of bible quotes and meaningless dogma. If you will listen to my “skepticism” with an open mind, I will be happy to respond to any point you want to make about why I should welcome your God and your Jesus. Perhaps we can educate each other, or at least come to understand each other better.
Greg, I am sincere when I say this: I do not doubt your faith and conviction. I think you are a good person who sincerely wants to lead me to what you see as salvation. I would also like to lead you to what I believe is a better way of thinking, and a better way of living. I know your faith gives you many emotional things – a sense of being special, a connection to community, a feeling that you are not alone, a connection to the past.
Many Christians believe that were they to lose their faith they would feel horrible, alone, terrified. They imagine that any atheist must lead a bleak and hopeless life. Yet I have spoken to many former Christians who describe coming to atheism as stepping out of childhood into adulthood, as stepping out of ignorance and superstition into the light. Any who were sincere believers had a terrible struggle with this emotional and intellectual journey, and many turn back to their (aptly named) blind faith. But those who come through to the other side suddenly realize what they have been missing all their lives, and this can be a source of great joy.
Greg, at the moment we are separated by a great intellectual and emotional void. I appreciate you reaching out to me, and trying to take me to your side. I think we both see each other as either very foolish, or ignorant of valuable truths we have found that have great meaning. In this I feel I have the advantage, because I have looked at your beliefs for many years, but I’m fairly certain you have only heard about mine through Answers in Genesis, which would hardly give you an accurate picture of atheism.
I will read any book you recommend that I read, and give you my thoughts on it. But I will only do this if you will listen to some speakers and read some books that I recommend. If you have the courage to do this, I would be very happy to walk with you.
I look forward to your response. If you don’t want to take this walk with me, or if you feel this would be a waste of your time, please let me know. I hope I hear from you.
P.S. the bible quote on your signature block is very interesting. Hebrews 11:1
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. ”
I have a different definition of faith. Faith is believing in things for which there is absolutely no evidence and believing in things that cannot be tested or inspected. In other words, faith is believing in Santa Claus.
The Letters to the Hebrews, which begins with your bible quote, includes one of the most puzzling passages in the Bible. What are we to think of a man who is willing to kill his beloved son because he believes his God told him to. Today we would certainly call him a schizophrenic maniac. In Christianity, this monster is held up as a hero of faith. I can’t accept that. If God told me to kill my son, even if I believed in God, even if I feared God, even if I loved God, I would tell him to pound sand. Send me to Hell if that’s what you want to do, you horrible excuse for a deity, but I will not believe in a loving God who would tell me to kill my own son. Such a God is not worthy of my worship or respect.
Now, my father, who was a devout Christian, saw the story of Abraham and Isaac differently. He said to me, “Every man has his Isaac. Something or someone he loves more than God. And if you are willing to give up that thing or person, God will not require it of you. It’s just a test.” I remember telling him that if his God would test a person that way, he was far from omnipotent and really stupid. Is that the best test he can have of a man’s faith, when he supposedly can see into his very heart?
End of response to Greg: I haven’t heard back from him, and don’t expect to. If I do, I’ll let you all know what he says.
Update: I received a email today from email@example.com to darwinharmless
Subject: Your commitment to God
Dear Darwin, Greg wrote to you last week. Have you had a chance to visit www.godlife.com/look-to-jesus or m.godlife.com/look-to-jesus? Greg would like to answer your questions and know how to pray specifically for you. Please write back! Sincerely in Christ, Internet Response Team
*************end of email from firstname.lastname@example.org **************
Okay, now I get it. This whole site is totally automated. There’s nobody there reading any letter in response. Or maybe they will surprise me again. I’ll let you know, but don’t hold your breath.